July 28, 2019 - International competition launches to create a Silicon Valley icon

Adam F. Hutton

Silicon Valley has no icon. For more than 50 years the area has had an international reputation as the world’s leading region for technology, business innovation and venture capital. In all that time, no monument has been built to symbolize its prestige.

But this week, a group of local philanthropists launched Urban Confluence Silicon Valley, a worldwide ideas competition to create a recognizable landmark just northwest of downtown San Jose — on Arena Green in Guadalupe River Park — one they hope will rival the Eiffel Tower in Paris or the Gateway Arch in St. Louis.

“We thought it was odd that an area as important as ours didn’t have an icon,” said Steve Borkenhagen, executive director of the San Jose Light Tower Corporation, a nonprofit group founded by Borkenhagen, Jon Ball and Thomas Wohlmut to manifest the missing icon.

He says the group has raised more than $1 million from hundreds of donors to finance the contest and the construction of the landmark.

The nonprofit takes its name from San Jose’s first, and last, international symbol — a 237-foot light tower that could be seen from San Francisco — a 19th century technological wonder making it the first city west of the Rocky Mountains to light itself using electricity in 1881.

But the tower did not endure. It survived the 1906 earthquake that destroyed many of the surrounding structures. But strong winds toppled it in 1915, and more than a century later, nothing has emerged to replace it.

The original concept the nonprofit came up with was to create a 21st century version of the tower near its original location at the corner of Market and Santa Clara streets.

Although the light tower continues to be an inspiration for the project, Borkenhagen said the group opened up to a wider set of possibilities after that idea received a lukewarm reception from the public. Part of the excitement around the project will be examining new ideas the founders of the group never envisioned, he added.

“We’ve come a long way from our original notion of a light tower,” Borkenhagen said, noting that the competition takes its name from the confluence of the Guadalupe and Coyote Rivers.

It’s a good thing too, says Bob Staedler, a land use consultant who worked in San Jose’s redevelopment agency for 12 years.

“The starting premise was off putting,” Staedler said. “Trying to replicate the past to make it seem iconic is futile.”

Former newspaper publisher David Cohen, who also serves on the Urban Confluence Silicon Valley community task force, says he wasn’t excited about the original concept either.

“Back in the day, the light tower was monumental, but today if it were replicated it would only be a relic,” Cohen said.

Even with the change in direction, Staedler says he’s not confident the project will achieve its goal.

“I’m extremely skeptical on this,” he said. “But I don’t make it a habit to tell other people how to spend their time and money, so as long as it’s not draining the general fund, God bless them.”

Staedler said the city should focus on expanding its trails and maintaining its parks for the people who live here, rather than building a monument for tourists.

But Borkenhagen says the landmark will be a source of civic pride, something that is sorely lacking, conspicuous by its absence in a place with an oversized ego in many other ways.

“Silicon Valley has great self-esteem in certain areas,” Borkenhagen said. “Intellectually and technologically, but we don’t have a place that causes people to have that feeling of awe that these great icons and landmarks do. That was our original motivation.”

That said, the nonprofit is not looking for an artist’s interpretation of the tech industry.

“We are in Silicon Valley, but we don’t want this to be an homage to the microchip or bro-culture or coding or any of that stuff,” the executive director said.

The group started soliciting entries for the contest on Tuesday and Borkenhagen says he expects hundreds, if not thousands, of applications. The deadline to submit is October 15. Next, up to 50 submissions will be selected by a community panel for a public exhibition in November. Those entries will go before a distinguished panel of artists, designers and place-makers, which will select three finalists.

The finalists will each be given $150,000 to develop their ideas and make their final presentations to the panel in May 2020. Borkenhagen says construction on the winning entry will begin later that year and continue into 2021.

It can’t come soon enough for Cohen, who arrived in Silicon Valley 35 years ago when “in terms of architecture, San Jose was the most boring place in the universe.” In other words, he’s been waiting for this for a long time.

“There’s no iconic structure that speaks to the innovation that has come out of this area and I think it is going to be fascinating to watch it happen with this project,” Cohen said.